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Spotlight Report

Accept pain of closings, letter says

Archbishop prepares parishes for decisions

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/10/2004

Saying "now is the time for decisive action," Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley is sending a letter this weekend to Boston Catholics urging them to accept the pain of parish closings to strengthen the Archdiocese of Boston.

The letter was a promised first step in what is expected to be a yearlong process of closing a large number of churches in the 357-parish archdiocese, which with 2 million adherents is the largest religious body in Massachusetts.

O'Malley said his top aide, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, will soon follow up with a letter outlining a detailed timeline for the church-closing process, which is expected to begin in earnest this month. Lennon, the vicar general of the archdiocese, is to head an archdiocesewide committee to oversee the consolidation process, which probably will also result in mergers and other parish reconfigurations.

"We must accept the challenge to make great sacrifices to achieve an even greater good," O'Malley said in the letter. "The future of our church's ministry in the archdiocese depends on God's grace and our willingness to make the sacrifices necessary for reconfiguration."

O'Malley offered no specifics in the letter, which largely reiterates arguments he made to priests in late December, when he told them of his plans to launch the parish-closing process.

In the letter, O'Malley insisted that at this point, "no parishes have been designated for closure" and that "the number of parishes to be closed has not yet been determined."

However, he said, "reconfiguration will involve a substantial number of parishes" and "not merely those parishes unable to pay their bills."

Lennon is asking priests to make the letter available to all parishioners this weekend. Some said they would attempt to insert it into church bulletins.

Priests interviewed yesterday said laypeople are anxious about closings and that the process will be a new test for O'Malley, who has enjoyed positive reviews during his first five months as archbishop, because he settled sex-abuse cases and proposed to sell the archbishop's mansion.

"He's getting high plaudits based on the momentum from his opening talk and the way he settled the sexual-abuse cases, but now he has a real challenge," said Monsignor Paul V. Garrity, pastor of St. Mary Church in Lynn. "This diocese is very, very large, and each parish sees itself as desiring to continue. Trying to communicate the reality that we can't continue in the same way we have is a hard message."

Priests said many parishioners are eager to hear more details about the scope and timing of the closings.

"The timeline is going to be the important aspect here, but we're clearly running out of priests, and we do have some churches that are empty and others where we have to have more staff," said the Rev. Francis M. Glynn, pastor of St. Anthony Church in Lowell. "We just have to take a look at it and make wise decisions."

Lay leaders said they will watch to see how much O'Malley listens to their voices in deciding not only which parishes should close, but whether the closings are necessary.

"The Catholic laity has a huge stake in this decision and, more importantly, in the process by which decisions are made, so there has to be meaningful involvement of the laity," said James E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization. "We need to be up there close to the engine, not in the caboose."

In the letter, O'Malley said that the number of parishes in the archdiocese has dropped from 404 in 1985 to 357 now, but that more closings are needed because of changes in demographics, the priest shortage, financial difficulties, and the poor state of many church buildings. The archdiocese estimates that, within the city of Boston alone, churches face $104 million in repair costs.

O'Malley said that "this process must truly be the work of the whole church" and will include bishops, priests, and laypeople.

"As we come together for these conversations, it is imperative that all come with an open mind, rather than a self-interested plan to save a particular parish," he wrote in the letter. "The reconfiguration will only work if everyone involved is committed to serve the whole Catholic family of the Archdiocese of Boston."

The process will involve all parishes in the archdiocese, except those in Lawrence and Lowell, which were well underway in planning parish consolidation, the letter said. In Lowell, the archdiocese is expected to cut the number of parishes from 13 to no more than six; in Lawrence, the number will drop from seven to three, according to priests in those cities.

Some parishes have begun talking, before receiving the letter. In Boston, parishioners of St. Ann University Parish, in the Symphony neighborhood, and St. Cecilia, in the Back Bay, plan to meet tomorrow and next weekend to discuss a possible merger hastened by a lead-paint issue at St. Ann's.

"Past experience has shown that it will be painful to close parishes," O'Malley said. "However, even in the midst of mourning, we must challenge each other to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure that the parishes that do emerge will be stronger."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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